Mid-Day Lunchbox: Inspired by life
Over their shared love of Hindi and Urdu, Pankaj Tripathi and Danish Husain discuss why acting is an art of life-long learning, being true to their craft, and how food connects them to their roots
It's the little moments that you create with your co-actors through gestures, movement, silence and pauses that go a long way in establishing your character," says Danish Husain as he recalls one such moment in the film Newton (2017) with Pankaj Tripathi, where the inherent hierarchy of Indian bureaucracy is slipped into a scene where seeing the DIG of police whip out his aviator sunglasses, the subordinate quietly puts his own pair down. And it is in these little moments that Tripathi and Husain create throughout this Lunchbox session, that their love for acting, Urdu and food, and their admiration for each other come through.
Tripathi joins us for lunch at The Little Door in Andheri after wrapping up a dubbing session, and before he begins shooting for the second season of the web series, Sacred Games. Husain arrives with a suitcase to catch a flight to Jaipur to stage Qissa Urdu ki Aakhri Kitaab ka, a farcical banter produced under The Hoshruba Repertory, his storytelling and theatre initiative. Known for their realistic portrayal of characters, both attribute the deceptive ease and spontaneity in their art to a keen observation of life itself.
Snigdha: Tell us about your first project together.
Danish: I had been following Pankaj's work since Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), but Newton was our first film together. I was delighted to learn that I was going to work with him. What I admire about him is the ease with which he works. Acting is not done in isolation. There has to be a chemistry between the co-actors, a creative exchange. And when you work with a good actor, your hunger [to do better] increases.
Pankaj: My association with [Danish] goes back to Ankhon Dekhi (2014). I was eagerly waiting for it because Sanjay Mishra had been cast in the lead role, and when a theatre actor plays a central part, we theatrewallahs rejoice in it. So, there was a scene set in a gambling den and that's when I saw Danish ji. There was something about him that struck me. For once, it felt as if Rajat Kapoor had actually roped in a person from real life. Next, I enquired about him by calling up Kapoor's office. Acting is often a play of status. Two actors will not be of the same status, and the dynamics within the scene may change with the content. His specialty is the manner in which he brings that status, and the aura and history of the character to a scene.
Danish: An actor is like a blank canvas, and a character is the colour you apply to the canvas. The clearer the canvas is, the more striking the colour looks. When you play a character, you must quieten the noise within you. You need to keep your eyes and ears open to the world around you, and when you do that for a long time, you begin to get a grasp of people's problems, emotions, and why they react the way do.
Pankaj: Kitni sundar baat kahi hai inhone!
Snigdha: You also share a love for languages. [To Pankaj] You attended an Urdu festival recently.
Pankaj: I spoke only in Bhojpuri in my village [Belsand], where I lived till the tenth standard. When I moved to Patna, I realised that I had to learn Hindi if I had to act. So, when I entered the world of theatre, I started reading Hindi literature, Quaid-e-Hayat [a book on Ghalib's life] and realised how vast the world is, how beautiful Urdu is. When you hear your language spoken in a foreign country, the joy is the same as finding desi food there.
Danish: Manto used to say, zabaan ka tallukh khoon se, khoon ka zameen se.
Pankaj: That's why Manto is such a great writer. What I have been trying to say for the last 15 minutes, he had strung together in one sentence long ago!
Danish: Having been educated in the English medium, it was only when I joined theatre that I realised that asli zabaan toh Hindi aur Urdu hai. I did plays in both, Hindi and English. But there was a certain artificiality to the latter. Hindi scripts today come written in Roman English. Very few actors, including Pankaj and I, insist on having our scripts typed out in the Devnagari script. If you need to give a good performance, you need to master the language.
Danish Husain and Pankaj Tripathi
(Albondigas, prawnbas, pita sliders, manzo, salad with greens and chicken arrive)
Snigdha: You arrived in Mumbai from different parts of India. What memories of food from your hometowns do you cherish?
Danish: In Mumbai, it's almost impossible to find food from our side of the country. The best of restaurants here are not able to replicate it. You'll get other cuisines here - Mangalorean, Konkani and Malvani - but if I want dal-chawal-roti-sabzi, I would need to go to Pankaj's home or he'll have to come to mine.
Pankaj: I love food from diverse cuisines. But if I spot bhindi or baingan ka bharta, or litti chokha in London, I might just faint out of happiness. After all, you do all this struggle for physical and mental khuraak [to feed the stomach and soul]. We have made all these advancements in science, medicine and infrastructure so that our life is secure and comfortable. But what should life be secure for? To cherish poetry, music, art, to watch cinema and theatre... The world revolves around this, but fails to understand it.
The tipping point when you knew you had to drop everything else to act:
Pankaj: I used to work in the kitchen of Maurya hotel in Patna at night, and do theatre during daytime. Around '98-99, I knew I had to plunge into acting full-time.
Danish: Around the same time, when I used to work in a bank in Delhi, I felt I didn't want to carry on doing this all my life. And I always knew I wanted to act on stage.
Pankaj: I feel sad that I have got distanced from theatre. But I intend to return to it next year. Cinema doesn't give an actor the joy he derives on stage.
An actor or director you would like to work with:
Pankaj: Destiny is on my side. I am getting to work with people - Anurag Basu, Anurag Kashyap, Neeraj Ghaywan, Tigmanshu Dhulia - I have wanted to work with.
Danish: I work with all my honesty. And my only wish is to work with people who do their job with the same honesty.
Food mantras you abide by:
Pankaj: Before a live performance or shoot, I ensure I get a good night's sleep and eat light. Acting is like meditation. You cannot afford to let your mind waver.
Danish: Even during lunch break when there is a spread laid out, I pick something light, just to stay energised.
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Guide Awards: Lesser-known Irani Cafes - Byculla Restaurant and Bakery